Samuel Johnson’s Lives of Poets: Life of John Dryden

Samuel Johnson's Lives of Poets: Life of John Dryden

John Dryden (1631-1700), Playwright, Poet Laureate and Critic

Below is a brief summary of the Life of John Dryden as presented in Samuel Johnson’s Lives of Poets.

Johnson begins by calling Dryden the great poet.” Dryden was deeply respected by his contemporaries but his “life” history was not written and, therefore nothing much can be said with certainty about him. At the University, he showed no signs of literary distinction either in prose or verse. He did not obtain any fellowship at the college.

After the death of Cromwell in 1658 Dryden came into public notice with his “Heroic Stanzas on the late Lord Protector”. He is praised by Johnson for the work, who says that these verses “were sufficient to raise great expectations of the rising poet.” With the restoration of King Charles II, Dryden’s views changed in favour of the new monarch who was praised in his poem, Astra Redux.

When he started writing for the stage he soon emerged as the leading playwright of his time along with competition from rivals. Critics’ disapproval of his plays was often poignant and even mostly just. He was well-received by his audience irrespective of their opinions. His first play was a comedy which was not well received by the audience. Dryden edited this play called The Wild Gallant to transform it into its present state, which, according to Johnson still bears some defects as pointed out by critics.

In his next play, Dryden proposed his concept of dramatic rhyme. The play was called The Rival Ladies (1664). Next, he wrote The Indian Queen, a tragedy in rhyme with Sir Robert Howard. In 1667, Dryden published The Indian Emperor which was written as a sequel to The Indian Queen. With time Dryden became not only comfortable but also excelled others in writing tragedies in rhyme. In 1667 came his Annus Mirabilis—one of Dryden’s most elaborate works, written in heroic quatrains.

His popularity raised so much that soon he became the first poet Laureate in 1668 as appointed by Charles II. The same year came his “Essay on Dramatic Poesy described by Johnson as an elegant and instructive dialogue”. In his preface to the tragi-comedy, “Secret Love or The Maiden Queen“, Dryden examines whether a poet can judge his own production justly, and proposes principles for the same. Dryden wrote a comedy ‘Sir Martin Marall that was published without any preface. He also wrote an alteration of Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest with the same name. Johnson expresses admiration for Dryden’s imaginations in this play and claims that such imaginations “could not easily enter into any other man”. He soon came with another of Shakespeare’s alterations, Troilus and Cressida. It is introduced by a discussion on the grounds of criticism of tragedy.

Dryden’s tragi-comedy, “The Spanish Friar is famous, as Johnson claims, “for the happy coincidence and coalition of the two plots.It was popular among the contemporary audience. Dryden proposes in the dedication of this play that drama needs an alteration of comic scenes and claims that “whoever cannot perform both parts, is but half a writer for the stage. Dryden’s “The State of Innocence and Fall of Man“, according to Johnson was not an Opera as Dryden called it, rather it was a tragedy in heroic rhyme. Johnson says that this work was the result of Dryden’s haste in production.

Dryden’s “All for Love or The World Well Lost is a tragedy based on the story of Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra‘, which he admits he wrote for himself. Johnson criticizes the work for promoting immorality. Johnson informs us that Dryden added a preface to his works to increase the value of his works. Through these discussions in the preface Johnson claims, that people’s ability to judge a good work must have improved. Dryden, however, regretted the prefaces as he “found his readers made suddenly too skilful to be easily satisfied.

During his busy career while writing 28 plays, Johnson says Dryden found time to write some other important works of other genres. He also wrote some memorable satires in verse, like Absalom and Achitophel, Mac Flecknoe and The Dunciad. He wrote, as Johnson observed, for personal reasons and rarely “upon a general topic. In 1694, Dryden took on his most painstaking and difficult endeavour of translating Virgil which was published in 1697. In 1699 was published his last work “Fables” which contains his popular, “Ode on Saint Cecilia’s Day” and his translation of the first book of the Iliad into English. Dryden died on the first May of 1701 and was buried in the poet’s corner of Westminster Abbey.

Johnson says that he tried to collect some facts about Dryden’s private life and domestic manners but he could not find much except that in winters he used to seat himself beside the fire and in summers on the balcony. Dryden called those two places his “winter and summer seat“. Johnson called Dryden the “father of English criticism” claiming that it was hewho first taught us to determine upon principals the merit of composition. He declares that Dryden’s “Essay on Dramatic Poesy” was the ‘first regular and valuable treatise‘ that teaches something about the art of writing.

Dryden was writing in an age when the critical principles were known to few and were mostly derived from the “Ancients” and some portion from the Italians and French. So neither the audience nor most of the playwrights understood the structure of dramatic poems. Dryden is praised by Johnson for bringing the science (i.e. principles and rules) of writing into his country. Johnson eulogizes Dryden for having manufactured the rules by importing the materials all by his skill. He says that Dryden’s critical essays are thecriticism of a poet and are not “rude detection of faults.The essays are cheerful and full of energy, in which delight is mingled with instruction”. His popular and well-praised plays show his mastery and authority on the subject.

Most of Dryden’s prose, except those devoted to his patrons, is critical (feature criticism). However, his treatises were never boring and monotonous. His prose style is not formal and sentences are never balanced, though every word “falls into its proper place“. His prose is airy, animated and vigorous. Johnson points out that Dryden often mentions himself too frequently, however, he acknowledges that “he is high in his own“. His limitations are overpowered by his imagery and powerful expression. He praises his critical works for their enduring content.

Dryden, in his successive works, is “always another and the same“. He does not repeat his same elegance and grace in the same form. However, he does sustain his mode of expression which is writing with vigour and clarity. Johnson says that his style “could not easily be imitated“. To him goes the credit torefine the language, improve the sentiments and correct English poetry (made it regulated, yet natural). Dryden also made a considerable contribution to the “poetical diction” by striking a balance during his selection of words between scholastic and popular, grave and familiar, elegant and gross”.

Johnson expresses his approval of the merits and qualities of Dryden’s satirical poem. However, this controversial political poem has its limitations as well—some inelegant lines, too many licentious ones, defective structure and inconsistent allegories. It lacked imagery or description and long sections of sentiments make the poem tiresome and monotonous. Further, Johnson comments on Dryden’s translation of Virgil arguing that Virgil’s translation has already been done by many better-qualified men. In his last work, Fables, Dryden introduced a new mode of writing in which ancient writers are rewritten by modernising their language.

In general, Johnson says, that Dryden had a very comprehensive mind enriched with acquired knowledge. He was a vigorous genius who wrote some great compositions. His strong reason predominates his quick sensibility. His works are the result of his hard work and studies rather than of a natural genius and spontaneous emotions. They are the outcome of deliberate meditations rather than natural sentiments. He had a reasoning mind and he delighted to talk of liberty and necessity, destiny and contingence”(=changes). Johnson concludes with his arguments and discussions that it was learning, but learning out of place”, because often his terms were not always understood” by the readers of his time. However when he engaged in discussions or debates, he had always objections and solutions at the command“.

Johnson continues by talking about Dryden’s ability to write comedies, for which Dryden himself had professed (=claimed openly but often falsely) that he was not naturally qualified to write comedy. Humour, Johnson conforms, came to Dryden but from other poets. He might not be plagiarizing but was definitely at least an imitator. His limitations also include the fact that he made too frequent use of mythology and sometimes mixed religion and fable blurring the distinction between the two. His use of unnecessary French words reflects his vanity to highlight the rank of the company with whom he lived”.Johnson also highlights his fault of negligence and points to his uneven compositions. He was content as soon as his readers were satisfied. He did not write keeping “perfection” in mind. He had no worthy rival and therefore he never thought of improving his art to achieve excellence. It appears to Johnson that Dryden was willing to enjoy fame on the easiest terms”. He usually avoided hard work and did not wait to improve his work if he found it sufficient. However, the haste that he was in might be the need of his time, but the negligence that he usually persisted with reflects his impatience of study.

Prior to Dryden who established these verse forms, triplets and alexandrines (=hexameter lines) were rarely used in English poetry. Dryden admitted that he adopted alexandrines after inspiration from the poems of Abraham Cowley. Alexander Pope praised and admired Dryden’s work claiming that:

“he could select from them better specimens of every mode of poetry then any other English writer could supply.”

Johnson speaks highly of Dryden and declared that no nation has ever produced a writer who has enriched his language with such a variety of models. He improved and completed “metre”, refined our language and even correct our sentiments. He taught us to think naturally and express forcibly”. Johnson finally praises Dryden with the metaphor of Augustus’ Rome—Dryden did to English poetry what Augustus did to Rome:

“he found it brick, and he left it marble.”


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